The new movie The Founder is the story of a thrice-married businessman who wheeled and dealed and got rich by lying and cheating and breaking his word to his partners. Sound familiar?
It did to critics like The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, as well as to a reviewer for The Economist, who called it “a Trumpian biopic.” Although the screenplay was written well before Trump announced he was running for president, director John Lee Hancock said the thought had crossed his mind, while directing, “There’s somebody else I’ve seen do this!”
The critique that Anthony Lane makes of both McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (Michael Keating) and President Donald Trump as “mean bastard[s]” is only one side of the story, however. In the movie, Hancock consciously paints a picture of a man who recognized the work ethic and dreams of “Middle America.” The Founder might be about a man with an outsized ego, but it’s also the story of the people who made up the scrappy, post-war middle class, and their will to improve their lot in life through grit, muscle, and wits.
The hero of the film isn’t Kroc nor the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald; the real heroes are the veterans returning to small towns and suburbs after World War II and the jacks-of-all-trades doing odd jobs to support their families. Those are the people who have the chance to aspire to more. The real life Kroc once called franchising “an updated version of the American dream,” and he wasn’t wrong. The first McDonald’s franchises opened in the Midwest, in places like Schuamberg, IL, Fond du Lac, WI, and Hamden, CT. Future CEO Fred Turner got his start working the grill of Kroc’s “McDonald’s No. 1” in Des Plaines, IL, in a scene recreated in the film.
It was here that Kroc found people with the kind of values and work ethic that led to business success. As the movie describes, Kroc initially recruited his wealthy, blue blood friends (“elites,” so to speak) from his country club to open franchises, but it wasn’t long before Kroc realized that the restaurants they opened were dirty and not following his rules about uniformity. It was at the American Legion, churches, synagogues, and community meeting halls that Kroc eventually found people receptive to his message that “McDonald’s. Is. Family,” and willing to put in the hard work to run a successful franchise.
As the movie suggests, Kroc noticed the crosses and American flags in the center of every town he drove through when he was a traveling salesman. Eventually, Kroc wanted the golden arches of McDonald’s to be as ubiquitous and trusted as those crosses and flags, and to prompt people to think of community. In many ways his visions succeeded. After the November elections, Wall Street Journal contributor Peggy Noonan wrote a column highlighting the photography of Chris Arnade, who visited what he called “back row America.” In these left-behind communities, where support for Trump’s candidacy was high, the local McDonald’s restaurants play host to Bible studies and gatherings of retirees. McDonald’s serves not merely as a fast food restaurant but as a thriving de facto community center in many struggling small towns across America.
Of course, some of the proclamations Kroc made in the 1950’s and 60’s, before McDonald’s had sprouted up in every shopping mall, and before China had supplanted the U.S. as the world’s largest market for fast food, seem darkly prophetic today. Indeed, McDonald’s (and KFC and Starbucks) are held up as symbols of America by development theorists and function as a prism through which foreigners understand America, but the values they symbolize aren’t necessarily ones to be proud of anymore: obesity, corporatism, and uniformity. “What do Americans eat?” naive Chinese people ask American tourists. “Don’t you just eat hamburgers all day?”
By the end of the movie, Ray Kroc, having made himself rich and well-known, looks into the mirror and distorts his face in a moment of uncertainty. Did he do things the right way? Could he have behaved differently and had a less tumultuous rise? The movie doesn’t answer these questions; it just shows us Kroc being whisked away to give yet another self-congratulatory speech. But viewers are left with an appreciation for the hard work that went into the creation of the McDonald’s empire as well as a sense of unease about its founder’s character.